The Crowded Wild

Posted on 21 September 2015

The photos may convey an untamed wilderness, but that’s not really the case – at least in these spots. On the Fourth of July, hoards of people descended upon Yellowstone’s lodges, its sprawling parking lots, its shops. With our car packed full to the windows with the last items of our prolonged cross-country move, we navigated our way through the park, winding around RVs, trying to see what we could, while we were there.

I can’t begrudge the other people, who were doing something similar to what we were – though I will project negative energies at those who strolled off the walkway in places clearly labeled Sensitive Ground, Stay on the Trail. A national park is a funny thing. Wilderness preserved and displayed in this way doesn’t seem so wild. But I know it’s there – it’s just off the road. With more time and no moving duties to attend to, I’ll return.

And crowds or no, the geysers and mud pots were pretty damn cool.

Tetons from YellowstoneOld FaithfulRiver and SteamDead TreesColored EarthSpitting GeyserTree ReflectionTrees and PoolGrand Prismatic SpringBuffaloYellowstone Grand Canyon

The Shock of What’s Real

Posted on 7 September 2015

Grand TetonsJackson Lake

The magnificent Grand Tetons faced us on the road and I faced them right back, unwilling to look away.

As we crossed into the national park, a moose balefully stared at the crowds huddling along the banks of the river, in whose cold water the moose was sheltered. I looked around balefully too, shying away from the hot dog toting crowds. I wanted to get out and camp in the mountains’ shadow, not sit under the eaves of a park convenience store. Feeling mildly claustrophobic, we drove past the already-full tent-only campsite, aiming for another at the far north of the park.

A more serene scene greeted us: a spot on the edge of the campground, bordered by a lake and hedged in by flowers. We set up camp and then I wanted to swim.

What’s as refreshing as jumping into frigid water? I may be crazy, but I haven’t found an adequate alternative. From the Finnish sauna to the Russian banya to Lake Baikal to glacier lake swims here in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been shocked and refreshed by plunges into bone cold water. I, who don’t particularly like swimming, am lured into the icy-under-your-skin embrace of these cool bodies. I go to them: they’re indifferent to me.

After some partner convincing, we walked down to the beach, bathing suits in hand. We changed, hiding behind a rack of canoes though we were the only ones on the shore. Then I haltingly charged into the water, as it was, so close to the chaos that is what we’ve made, but really so removed. We were the only ones in sight.

The clenching freeze abated and I was able to jollily flop around in the water for a handful of minutes. And then I emerged, skin red and prickling, feeling great. I wasn’t cold anymore.

Lizard Creek FlowersLizard Creek CampsiteJackson Lake in the Morning

Disappear into Earth

Posted on 31 August 2015

When I travel, I revel in the crazy encounters, in the soft souls that hold me for a time.

And sometimes, I revel in their absence.

Welcome to WyomingWyoming Storm Coming

Wyoming. It’s vast. The sky pools overhead and the hills undulate on and on and on, spotted with scrub, never quite hiding how far the landscape can stretch. For all the millions of people in this country, it still has its empty places.

I peered out of the car windows, looking for prairie dogs.

We stopped in a small town, population less than a hundred. A visitor information office sat sentry, housing maps for the nearby national forest. We were given our directions, and water from the house out back, from an enthusiastic and helpful lady. I pet the horses fenced in next door.

An hour later, we were bouncing along the dirt forest roads. I aggressively ruled out spots that portended neighbors. Winding our way high onto a hill, we came across a spot that, though not entirely flat, contained an old fire circle and was as isolated as we could get. We took it.

The evening was spent setting up camp, stoking the fire, eating our camping food, hiding from a quick burst of rain in the tent, watching birds and chipmunks, and generally being alone and slightly wild.

Making FireTall CampfireFeet by the Fire

Poems, Mountains

Posted on 16 August 2015

We exited Rocky Mountain National Park, snow splotches fading in our eyes, winding down the road toward Wyoming.

Rocky Mountain TreesRocky Mountain National ParkRocky Mountain Pond

I had a red eye flight out of Seattle. Equipped with my not-at-all stuffed to the gills backpack (truly, it wasn’t), I sat on the bus, off to the airport, chatting animatedly with the bus driver who asked where I was going. I told him about my upcoming road trip, my home-in-the-making, and he told me about his job, how long he’d been a bus driver, previous travels, and his desire to get out somewhere soon, over the holiday weekend maybe, Canada maybe. Do it, I said. Just go.

Never has going been a bad idea.

I trod into the Denver airport at around 2am but I wasn’t counting. I scouted the somewhat familiar airport – I hadn’t been to Denver proper but the airport, yes, several times – and found a hidey hole in a quiet area. I dragged some chairs nearer to the wall and lay on the floor. My next flight was at 9:30am to Pierre. I was cold on the floor and it was bright. I rolled around until I deemed it time for breakfast, and off for a bagel and the largest coffee was I.

Armed with caffeine and nourishment, I headed to my gate. Almost to a new place! Almost to my boyfriend, who I hadn’t seen in months! Numbers slipped my mind so early, and I paused in front of a departures screen to remind myself of the gate number. Cancelled.

Disgruntled, I headed to the gate anyhow. The weather was fine so I wasn’t sure what could be happening. But, yes, this rubbish airline had cancelled our flight. It was Friday morning before the Fourth of July weekend and the next flight wasn’t until Sunday. Demoralized would-be passengers sat around me. How to get to their families to celebrate? It wasn’t sure. I called some rental car companies. Nothing available. So my boyfriend switched his driving route, looping instead toward Denver to meet me. In the meantime, I had until the evening.

For a while I luxuriated in the hotel bed, recuperating from the airport floor. Then I showered. And then I knew that, if I was in Denver, I shouldn’t waste the rest of my time in a hotel room. I randomly picked a microbrewery, called an Uber, and set off with my book tucked underarm. As per usual, I chatted with the driver.

I entered Great Divide Brewing’s Tap Room and for just a moment, I felt overwhelmed by the crowd clustered around the bar to order. I stepped away, nearer to the bathrooms, and two women pointed at the book under my arm. “What is it? I love seeing someone carrying around a book.” I started my explanation about the book, by an Estonian-Finnish author, about the book’s examination of the Soviet invasion of Estonia, and its lasting repercussions. Often, but not always, my long-winded explanations are met with bemused disinterest. This time, I received more questions in turn. I followed them to the bar.

And then, I followed them to one of their homes, after a flood of invitation, persuasion. I had hours until my boyfriend got to Denver, after all. I texted him their address, where he would pick me up.

How does this happen? We sat on the porch, looking up poetry on our phones. We recited in English, Spanish, and Russian. That never this heavy ball of earth will drift away beneath our feet. Lines in foreign languages were met with hands on the heart.

My tired-of-driving-all-day boyfriend gathered an ecstatic me. Kisses on the cheek, goodbye. We went back to the hotel to ready ourselves for our road trip that would begin tomorrow. But I was already traveling.

Rocky Mountain ElkRocky Mountain Flowers and SnowBen Picknicking

We wound up, up into the mountains, into the patches of snow, into the blue sky. We sidestepped crowds of people, sitting at the most secluded picnic table. I spun around with my camera – mountains mountains elk mountains. The high altitude air was clear. We were together again, and we were here. A lightness. We commented on the super strong cyclists pushing their way up into the heights as we drove down and out.

We exited the park. We exited Colorado.

Leaving Colorado

A Sharpening

Posted on 27 July 2015

“You seem more confident now. You don’t care about what others think.” Lingering words. One of my two beloved German professors earnestly leaned toward me in the crowded and noisy bar, a show likely happening in the background. Amid the clamor, my brain questioned whether my ears really heard what they so wanted to. But my ears were right. He was right. I had just studied abroad in two different countries, I had traveled through central Europe by myself, couchsurfing for the first time. I felt different: a little larger, a little sharper.

Young, and navigating my way through my early college years with the constant self-questioning, “am I cool enough? Do I look good enough?” I know I’m an odd duck, but odd can be cool, so am I, am I? Staring at my bangs in the mirror, hand on the scissors. They must be perfect or I’ll look stupid. An hour passes. I did my bangs alright, but I don’t feel any different, any better.

Recently, two weeks camping in Siberia. Bucket showers at most. Mud, no make-up, no shaving. Still: on goes the bathing suit and into the freezing waters I go, screaming, laughing. And if I want, in excitement or contentment or both, I raise my arms above my head.

In Lake Baikal

Last month, for the local wacky solstice festival, a friend and I, inspired, grew out and, gasp, dyed our armpit hair. I had not an ounce of negative self-consciousness, nay, I even felt a bold pride. If someone were to say something I would have laughed, uncaring, because now I do what I want, what’s comfortable for me. Because, I know I’m cool and that cool is a nebulous shifting piece of crap anyway, but whatever, I’m cool if I feel I am.

Young, and in my dorm room because my friends are busy and I don’t want to go to the cafeteria by myself. How mortifying! Instead, I scrape peanut butter and jelly onto some bread and turn back into my dim little room cave.

Recently, checking into a hostel in Klaipėda. I’m alone and I want to go biking along the Curonian Spit. A girl checks in behind me. I turn to her and start to chat right away. We wander around town together. The next morning, we cycle.

This month, I have time to kill alone in Denver after a cancelled flight. I could sit around in my hotel room, but that wouldn’t do. So I grab an Uber to a microbrewery downtown, to see what’s going on, I read there were food trucks there. Immediately after stepping inside, two women ask about the book I have tucked under my arm. I join their group out on the patio and eventually we head back to one of their houses, where we end up reciting poetry in English, Russian, and Spanish. My boyfriend, arriving in town after rerouting his journey to meet me, picks me up at their place. I’m glowing.

Throwing yourself out there, tumbling around—it builds an additional layer of skin, a barrier for sloughing the silly fears off, a coating of eh I don’t care about the superficial things, but about the meaningful connections, the adventure.

And travel, especially solo travel, especially wing it and it’ll be fine travel, is throwing yourself out there, to be sure. Do it enough and you’ll become tough in all the right places. Maybe not completely free from social anxiety or body image blues, but you can get much, much better.

My professor, six years ago, was right. Now, he is six years righter.

Pssst! Don’t forget to vote for me, Leah, to be the next Women in Travel Summit Global Ambassador! Voting closes tomorrow.

Vote! WITS Global Ambassador

Posted on 22 July 2015

My dear blog readers! Today it was announced that I’m a finalist in the contest to be the Women in Travel Summit Global Ambassador. The winner is selected by vote, so of course, if you enjoy this blog and think I would be a good ambassador, I would very much appreciate your support!

Visit this page, check out my statement and photos, then VOTE for yours truly (Leah) if you’re inclined!

And hey, hope to see you at WITS!

WITS PhotoWhere do you think the above contest photo was taken? Hint: I’ve written a post on this location!



A Dreamland

Posted on 15 June 2015

Cactus Flower, PeruCordillera Blanca DonkeyPath to Laguna ShallapCordillera Blance HorsesLaguna ShallapBehind Laguna Shallap

I am hungry for new scenery, for vastness. Huaraz and its surroundings provide. The Cordillera Blanca towering above, around. The green and rocky path. I sink in. I look around as if it’s a dreamland. Earth is full of dreamlands. Everyone can find a dreamland, different, widely different, from whence they come. My eyes just drink.

The Flood

Posted on 31 May 2015

Under a tree I sat, brow inevitably furrowed. My eyes felt red. I looked around at the greenery. It was not too cold, not too hot. Large flowers, and an avocado tree, were not far. I was in Kenya. But I was miserable, I seethed, I felt trapped in this place, in my skin. I picked at a piece of grass then threw it as far as I could.

Sexual harassment had, long ago, gotten very old for me. I would say I was used to it—the waiting to cross the street while men leaned out of a truck and hollered, the walking home from class briskly and hearing whistles despite my headphones, the shielding my face as men laughed, sticking cell phones in front of me to take my photo. And worse, the stories from others, whispered, whose invasion ran more deeply, more physically. The trepidation. But, of course, you never get used to it. You fill up and then you overflow.

I was overflowing.

I was in Kenya, and the only safe place was in my tiny room, locked. Walking with my male colleagues was better, but that didn’t end the catcalls. Walking alone was worse. I sat under the tree with the phone card I had just purchased from the village shop a ten-minute walk down the road. I was followed halfway home by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

And people tell me I walk fast.

On the bus, a man moaned about my hair blowing in the wind and masturbated while no one said a thing. In crowds, men grabbed me, trying to draw me to them. Anywhere, men shouted at me. At work discussions, men would ask questions about me, about my age, to my male colleagues since women supposedly can’t answer for themselves. At work, I was sexually harassed by my boss, who would make lewd comments, who would grab my hand to shake it as is custom, but then would pull me closer to give me a slurpy kiss on the cheek. On the institute’s campus, I would act politely toward the men who worked with us, but then would be bombarded with creepy phone messages.

I was in Kenya, and this is when I started to feel as if I was becoming a bad person.

There was nothing I could do to protect myself, but projecting a defensive aura of rage helped. Scowling at all men helped. Walking as fast as I could, sunglasses on, keeping myself closed, never open, helped. I shielded myself from all the bad as best I could, but that meant I was also blocking the good.

Emanating waves of negative energy sucked me hollow. Good people like other people, right? They’re compassionate, right? They’re open, right? And I walked around hating half of all people as the best defense I had. Never, ever smile.

Of course, this story doesn’t end. I would run at home and trucks would follow me, would honk. I would step out of the door at my homestay in Peru, clothed in black, sunglasses on, head down, and the kisses and the deliciosas and the shouts of you fucking cunt I’m going to rape you would rain down. I would walk, holding hands with my boyfriend, and men would shout, shout, shout. And laugh.

I live and I walk and I look at things and I feel a man approach from behind and stop and repeat “hi hi hi hi” until I turn and tell him to go away, I clearly don’t want to talk. I sit outside on a conference call for work, notebook in my lap, and a man places himself in front of me, “hello beautiful,” standing standing standing there until I shoo him, still on the phone, still trying to work. I leave an event, I see a man leer at me and I know, I grab the pepper spray in my purse, enter my car and lock the door, and he peers down at me, having followed me there.

I hate them all.

I feel guilty. Maybe good people don’t hate. But I hate them all.

How to deflect? I try to live and I am assaulted. I absorb.

I overflow.

Hotel Hall in Kenya

The Gaps Between Us

Posted on 19 April 2015

There are some things, many things, I cannot wrap my mind around.

I had found myself in western Uganda. Yes, I hadn’t exactly planned this, but my internship work sent me. The same day I was told it would be good to visit the forestry college in Masindi district, I was on a bus to the region bordering Lake Albert and the DRC. In the dark, I was shown into a room, and left for myself until the morning. What appeared to be a flying worm buzzed near the light and I shivered, trying as hard as possible not to be squeamish but, failing, retreated under the covers beneath the mosquito net.

Morning came and I had no water with which to shower. By now, this was not a surprise nor, usually, an annoyance. It was an acceptance. I put on sunscreen and stepped out into the greenery to be swept away. Much of my time interning in East Africa passed thus: I let myself be carried along. There was no way for me to plan. It was hard to get information. It was trying, very trying sometimes, to understand what was even going on. So, I cultivated patience and an adventurous streak. Masindi district today? Alright, meet you for the bus this afternoon.

So, now I was on a bus with college students who had been in the area for a month. We were driving to a village to interview people who worked on a collaborative forest management project. Here’s the very simplistic gist of it. This district is very rural, and very poor. It also is home to refugees from the DRC, who fled the decades-long conflict there. The economy is largely based on agriculture. There are beautiful forests around too, with precious trees like mahogany, and chimpanzees who live in the green shadows. There are forest products worth money, and they are often illegally and unsustainably harvested. This community had formed a group to protect the forest, border planting around it, patrolling it, and even creating apiaries.

Some of the college students chatted with me, and one in particular stuck with me, very kindly so, I must say. I never quite grasped a full understanding of what was going on around me between the heavily accented English and the other languages circling around during the meeting. She translated generally what was happening. I sat back and just watched.

Girl and Baby in Masindi District

We made it to a farm and met with a group of people, and again, another girl latched herself to me—this time a villager, not a student. She was very sweet and quite taken with my name, repeating it to me in a sing-song manner: Leah, Leah. We fumbled words between us, talking as best we good. She held a baby on her back. Where’s yours, she asked. I have none. But how old are you? At the time, we were about the same age: she, 20, I, 21. Do you have brothers and sisters, she asked. Yes, two. So few? Will you take my baby to London, she asked. I can’t. I don’t live in London. I’m sorry.

That’s as far as we got before language and experience built an insurmountable wall, marking the end of our hour together. I had to go with the students anyway. I knew I would never see her again. Her life would trail off in a vastly, vastly different way from mine. In a way that I simply cannot, cannot understand. She doesn’t get my life. I don’t get hers. I’m sorry, sister.

That afternoon, I went to the market with one of the teachers. I wanted to leave as soon as we arrived. I stepped into the aisle and a man grabbed me, hard. I wrenched away, furious, and continued walking, not looking, not making eye contact. I was scared. I didn’t understand well how the market functioned. I didn’t understand how I, white as can be, could navigate through the bustle without being handled again. I didn’t understand how I could even look at a blanket of goods, spread on the ground, covered in items I did not need nor could carry, without sparking false hope in vendors’ eyes. I did not know how to communicate anything well. I shied away. Eventually, we left.

The next day I was taken to Budongo forest, riding on a truck that was picking up food for the students at the college. We chugged down the road known as the Royal Mile when I saw a person run across the way. No, a chimpanzee. I got out of the truck, nervously, and with my camera walked slowly in front. Chimps ran around beside the road, the younger ones curious, the older ones displaying, banging on trees. They were very large. I avoided looking directly at them, which could provoke. I buzzed with a nervous thrill. While the chimps’ strength was unmistakable even from afar—they could crush me—here I was, walking with chimps, remembering my childhood idol Jane Goodall. The chimps followed for awhile, and then went back to their own activities.

The Royal Mile, Budongo Forest Chimp, Budongo Forest

I was dropped at a field station, managed by the Jane Goodall Institute, hosting primatologists, where I spoke with a couple of Brits who were working there. They fed me some tea and I overstayed, the truck waiting for me outside, for I was clinging to conversation, to a situation, that I could easily grasp, that my mind bent around no problem.

But back in the truck, driving along, we passed by huts, children whose malnutrition was apparent playing outside. I shrunk away from the window sometimes as eyes searched me out. I’m sorry, I really, really, don’t understand. Back at the college grounds, we passed by a woman who had earlier been looking for the clinic, lying in the grass, just lying there. I pointed her out to the teacher: tell someone, we should get the doctor, can you call someone? Oh, he told me, she just has malaria and the doctor will come.

I just had to drift along, trying to understand, but failing.

Masindi Hills, Uganda

Eyes Open, Mouth Closed

Posted on 6 April 2015

“You should go to Húsavík,” my impromptu host in Akureyri told me. “I went whale watching there.” Clara handed over some brochures she had kept. Alright, why not? We got up early to go to Akureyri’s geothermal baths and then I rushed to the bus station. Luckily, I realized I was at the wrong station just in time—and the right one was just across the street. I settled into the minibus between my neighbors and we sped off into the morning.

Riding a bus in Iceland is never boring. The landscape is enormous and beautiful and the weather overhead is rapidly shifting. The bus pulled over and we squeezed in even tighter to let on a father and son. Even though the bus was already full, we weren’t going to make them wait hours for the next. Hugging ourselves inward, we smiled at each other and settled back as best as we could in the tight space.


Húsavík's Harbor


It was still early when the bus dropped us off in Húsavík. It wasn’t too difficult to find my way around in the town numbering just over 2,000. Yellow flags flapped in the wind declaring, whale watching! I went and bought a ticket and dinked around by myself until the ship would depart. A line of mist hung over the harbor and it was hard not to stare. I began to pile on more layers. Clara had bequeathed me a chunky and overly large red sweater that she had found in her apartment when she moved in. Heeding her warnings about the cold on the sea, I tugged it on over my T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, and scarf, and then awkwardly fasted my jacket on top of the bulk.

Joining the group on the ship, I realized I was probably the only one by myself. There were families, there were couples, there were friends, and there was me. I didn’t care. I ran across the boat along with everyone else, side-to-side, glimpsing dolphins, minke whales, and my beloved puffins. After awhile, the boat began to make its way back to harbor and we were served hot chocolate. By that time, I was shivering horridly, despite my puffy layers. Eventually I had to succumb and put on the ship overalls. I willed the boat to get off the cold sea more quickly now that we’d seen the sights.

Immediately after disembarking I went hunting for food because I needed to warm up. I found a place selling French fries out of a window. Those are warm. And indeed, I was able to gradually strip off some of my layers. After finishing my meal, I began to wander around town, my backpack in tow. I stopped in a bakery and bought a kleina, a pastry consisting of fried dough. So, yum.


House in Húsavík


When traveling, I seem to vacillate from one end of the socialization scale to the other, in ways that may put others on edge. I had gone from staying with three different strangers in a row, all in tight quarters (including a wet tent), to wandering around by myself. I don’t mind; I like both.

I walked through the back streets up to the main road along the harbor. I stood outside of the Phallus Museum (I kid you not. It has since moved to Reykjavík.), looking at the stone and wood statues alluding to obvious things in lieu of paying for a ticket to actually get inside. I stopped by the tourist information center to dash off a few quick emails (“I’m in Húsavík; I hadn’t planned to be here but I am; it’s nice; back to Reykjavík in the evening to catch my flight out”). I wandered up a hill and explored the graveyard overlooking town and the sea.

It was time to catch my bus. This one was a tad more roomy. I exercised my vocal cords again by chatting with the man next to me who wondered what I had been up to. Wandering and whale watching. Yes, alone. Yes, it was fun.

I contemplated the scenery out of the window, which is what I had been doing all day really, sans pane. I like to contemplate. It can be easier when you’re alone. Meet people: learn. Step back: absorb. My time in Iceland was about to end. I let it all filter through me in silence.



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